One of the strange facts about the classic 1970s sitcom Three’s Company is that it’s the show that propelled Suzanne Somers — who played Chrissy Snow alongside John Ritter‘s Jack Tripper and Joyce DeWitt‘s Janet Wood — into the stratosphere, but also the one that could have completely derailed her career. And the reason for that, she explains, is that she was merely trying to renegotiate her contract.
“I’m on the No. 1 show with the highest demographics of all women in television, and at the height of my career, and I get fired for renegotiating,” Suzanne says. “And the reason I was renegotiating is that I wanted to be paid commensurate with the men. But ABC wanted to make an example out of me, the thinking being that if they could fire Chrissy Snow, every other woman on television should beware. And it worked for a long time until Roseanne Barr came along. In today’s world? I could have sued their ass and owned ABC, but at the time there were no movements or anything. But I decided not to be a victim.”
That last point is highly significant when it comes to Suzanne Somers, whether you’re talking about her early life, struggles with her career before and after Three’s Company (currently airing on the Antenna TV network) or her battle with breast cancer. As she has proven to her doubters, she is a survivor.
Life as Reinvention
One of the things that life has taught Suzanne is that it, as well as her career, is filled with highs and lows, and that one just needs the opportunity to get some perspective on it all. “You don’t learn anything when you’re on a high,” she notes. “You learn when you’re low. That’s when you have time to sit back and think and realize that when you hit the top of the mountain, there’s nowhere to go further up. You can only start going down, and that’s the time to go left or right and reinvent yourself. And I have actively reinvented myself over and over and have taken every big fist that has come my way and turned it into rocket fuel. It’s kind of an attitude, like, ‘Oh yeah? Let me show you!'”
‘Alcoholism runs in our genes’
Born Suzanne Marie Somers on October 16, 1946, in San Bruno, California, she did not always have an easy childhood. As chronicled in her autobiography (eventually adapted into a TV movie and credited with launching the adult children of alcoholics movement) Keeping Secrets, she wrote in detail about the fact she suffered an abusive childhood because of her father. “He was a bad alcoholic,” she offers. “It runs in our genes and I’ve written several books about my father. Keeping Secrets was the first time a celebrity ever told the tale on themselves. It’s easy to tell the story about your alcoholic dad, but the other story is, what did it do to me?”
‘I grew up believing I was stupid and worthless’
Suzanne shares that she can remember being repeatedly berated as a child, which eventually resulted in her realizing the need that bullies have to stay with you mentally; for you to always have them on your mind. “I was told, ‘You’re nothing, you’re stupid, you’re hopeless, you’re worthless, you’re a piece of crap.’ And I believed it.”
Because of this, she genuinely grew up feeling that she was incapable of learning, and she was filled with insecurities as a result of it. Beyond that, she points to a traumatic moment that impacted her life: her mother had made her a junior prom dress for what was supposed to be her first big date. She’d gone to bed dreaming about this major event, but then her father, incredibly drunk at the time, came into her room and tore that dress to pieces. When her mother came in screaming at him, he responded by punching her in the breast and knocking her down to the floor. This caused Suzanne to go into action.
“I picked up my tennis racket and, with all my might, I brought it down on his head,” she says. “I’m 16-years-old and my father is beating up my mother. I’m powerless and he was a champion prizefighter.” She nonetheless managed to deliver a concussion — and the need for numerous stitches. Notes a triumphant Suzanne, “I was still afraid of my father, but what I realized later on is that he was afraid of me, because for that one moment I had the attitude of, ‘I’ll show you. You can’t do this anymore.’
“Sometimes,” Suzanne adds, “the worst things in life become rocket fuel to get you through life, because there’s no life without those big-fist events. You’ve had them. I’ve had them You will have more, I will have more. You can either be a victim when these things happen to you, or you can dust yourself off and ask, ‘How can I learn from this? How can I grow from this? What’s the lesson?'”
From Hiding in a Closet to Triumphs in Hollywood
This raises the question of what the lesson was that led her to a career in acting. “Oh, man, I’d love to give you a profound answer,” Suzanne laughs. “When things were really bad, we hid in the closet most nights. But during the day if it was really bad, my parents had a closet that if you crawled way, way in the back of, it was really dark. The priests or missionaries or whoever they were, they were all looking for money. They used to send these envelopes to my mother to get some money out of the $60 a week she had. As a good Catholic, she sent it, whatever amount it was. But as a gift to her, they would send these glow-in-the-dark rosary beads.
“I would take the rosary beads,” she elaborates, “way in the back of that closet and look at them glow in the dark. When I was a little girl, we all heard that we had to fight communism. I didn’t know what communists were, but they sure were bad cats and they needed fighting. And I used to have this vision that I went to the top of the hill where all the communists were. I, me, at that time Suzanne Mahoney, said to the communists, ‘Why do you want to fight?’ They looked at me and said, ‘You know, you’re right.’ So I brought about world peace. But doesn’t that show the triumph of the human spirit in its littlest form there?”
Living ‘Guys and Dolls’
As she explains it, Suzanne initially attended Catholic school, where she insisted on wearing her skirts too short and the nuns insisted that she leave. Switching to public school, and not wanting to deal with the “craziness” on the home front, she got involved with the fine arts department and managed to score the lead role of Adelaide in Guys and Dolls. “Man, was I Adelaide at 16-years-old. I morphed into that character,” she enthuses. “I had never studied acting or anything, but, man, did I get who she was. Then a newspaper columnist named Walter Winchell heard about this high school production outside of San Francisco, where I was. Whatever got him to come on closing night of Guys and Dolls at Capuchino High School, when it was over up walks this guy on stage in a trench coat and pork pie hat. He comes right over to me and he says, ‘You’re going some place, Sister.’ Because of that, I got a scholarship to college. I’m the first one in my family to go to college.”
Life’s Unexpected Turns
For reasons that she can’t even explain, she ended up using her scholarship for a Catholic college. “When you’re young and stupid, you’re young and stupid,” she shrugs. “Then I got pregnant with the guy whose last name was Somers, who I was going to break up with because he hated the success I had in Guys and Dolls, and I just wanted to break up with him. I had sex once — if it was sex — and got pregnant. At that time, if you got pregnant, you had to get married. So I had to get married. I was thrown out of school and sent away from home in shame. I have a baby that I adore, but I hate being married. I hate that I feel I missed out on something, though I don’t know what it is. I divorced my husband, which no one did then. I was the first one in my small hometown to ever get a divorce. It was shameful for my family. Shameful for the small town. I moved further away and it was just me and my little boy.”
She remembers that when she held her son, she promised him a good life. Suzanne figured out how to feed, shelter, and clothe him. She earned a living making chocolate desserts for restaurants in Sausalito, California, and by making children’s dresses and selling them on consignment in children’s stores. “That didn’t go well,” she sighs. “It cost me more to make the dress in time and toil, but there are a bunch of people who have little dresses made by Suzanne Somers who will never know how much they’d be worth on eBay.”
Suzanne read about a part available for a guest star in Lotsa Luck, a sitcom starring Dom DeLuise. The need was for a small-town girl who doesn’t know she is and doesn’t know what she looks like. Says Suzanne, “I thought, ‘That is so me.’ I was smart enough to know that.”
Fate in the Form of Johnny Carson Intervenes
While waiting for an audition, Suzanne went to the studio commissary, where she ran into then Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. He said hello, they struck up a conversation, she mentioned she was auditioning for the Dom DeLuise series and, because she didn’t have photos of herself, handed him a book of poetry she had written and managed to get published. A few days later, she received a call that they’d like her to be a guest on The Tonight Show.
“At that time,” she says, “I only had one credit; I’d been hired as an extra by George Lucas as a mysterious ‘Blonde in the Thunderbird’ in American’s Graffiti. I’m standing behind that famous curtain at The Tonight Show, thinking, ‘Oh my God, they must love my poetry.’ And I hear Johnny Carson say, ‘We’ve all been wondering who the mysterious blonde in the Thunderbird is in American Graffiti. Well, we found her.’ And they opened the curtain and the audience went, ‘Woo!’ I sat down kind of stunned, and he began having me on every month. I started making my living doing The Tonight Show. My little book of poetry became the No. 1 best selling book of poetry that year along with Rod McEwen.”
They Came and Knocked on Her Door
Around that time, Fred Silverman, head of programming for ABC, saw her on The Tonight Show and felt that Suzanne would be perfect for the character of Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company, a part he’d been having difficulty filling. She was hired, the show debuted, and became an absolute phenomenon. But that success never felt too much for her, which she credits to the fact that she had her son to come home to as well as second husband (and eventually her manager) Alan Hamel, who she married in 1977. But then, given the success of the show, came the decision to try and renegotiate her contract for better terms.
Reflects Suzanne, “The night before the negotiations, we had gotten a phone call from somebody in management at ABC, and they said, ‘They’re going to hang a nun in the marketplace and it’s going to be Suzanne.’ When Alan left the next morning for that meeting, he stopped and uncharacteristically turned back to me and said, ‘You know, this could all blow us out of the water.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s a negotiation. We asked for this, they counter, you come back, they come back, we meet in the middle and all is well.'”
All is Not Well
When Alan returned home, he sadly noted that she was out. “He said, ‘They were going to fire you when I walked in the door. They said it wasn’t a negotiation,'” Suzanne shares. “And then he took me by the shoulders and he said, ‘We’re going to make this work for us.’ It took me about a year of licking my wounds and then one day I said to him, ‘I’d really like to do a Vegas act.’ I had the name and he was able to make a great two-year deal for me. I hired the best Hollywood writers and choreographers and put together this big act. I brought Chrissy to life on stage in the middle of the show and people would give her a standing ovation every night. One night in 1987, I walked on stage with Frank Sinatra. He was named Male Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year and I was named Female Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year. So every time some big life event happens, I’ve used it to work for me and what’s happened is it’s worked for the better good, especially in the later incarnations.”
Three Words That Rocked Her World
In the years to come (as evidenced further down below) Suzanne would have no problem finding work in TV movies, guest-starring roles, shows of her own (including talk shows), spokesperson for Thighmaster, and music performances. But in 2001 she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was initially devastating to her. “The day you hear those three words, ‘You have cancer’ … man, it rocks your world.”
She walked on the beach with Alan that day, arm-in-arm, and she says she heard a voice in her head (not an infrequent occurrence). “The voice said to me, ‘You can handle this,'” Suzanne relates. “I got back in the house and I said to Alan, ‘I can handle this.’ And I decided that I could. That’s when I decided I’m not taking chemotherapy and when I told the doctor that, he said, ‘You’re going to die.’ I said, ‘I cannot reckon with the fact of taking my weakened body right now and weakening it even more with poison. It doesn’t make sense to me and it never will. I’m not going to do it.’ It was all over the news, but here I am and my body’s healthy and it’s not ravaged by poison. I didn’t have to come back from the brink of death, I just did it my way through nutrition, detoxification and pancreatic enzymes.”
Those feelings led her to develop and launch organic products and provide guidance — despite what a number of medical people thought — to people looking for more natural cures to illnesses. She has also authored numerous books, ranging from memoirs to tomes on nutrition and living a healthier life. From her 1980 book of poems to 2017’s Two’s Company: A Fifty-Year Romance with Lessons Learned in Love, Life & Business, she has written a total of 25 titles and continues pushing forward, very much controlling the narrative in a way Hollywood never allowed her to.
“The media never got me,” Suzanne emphasizes. “We took charge of our own PR and started focusing it to a constituency that is open and receptive to who I am and my message, and that number is well into the millions. For a kid who hid in the closet, it doesn’t matter to me what the media thinks anymore. With social media, you can bob and weave and find yourself in the right place. Why put yourself in the wrong place where they’re not going to like you? This is a whole new world and the mainstream media doesn’t have anywhere near the power and influence it once had.”
Please scroll down for a look at Suzanne’s career over the years.
1. ‘American Graffiti’ (1973 Film)
In her first credited movie role, Suzanne plays the “Blonde in the Thunderbird.” American Graffiti was the second film directed by George Lucas, who, thanks to the success of this movie, was able to film the original Star Wars next. Around this time, she also appeared on TV game shows Anniversary Game, Mantrap, and The Dating Game.
2. ‘Lotsa Luck’ (1974 TV Series Guest Star
Dom DeLuise is Stanley Belmont, who works at the lost and found department at a local busy company, and who, at home, must deal with his overbearing mother, sister, and her husband. The show ran for 22 episodes and Suzanne was a guest star.
3. ‘The Rockford Files’ (1974 TV Guest Star)
Another TV guest star appearance, this time in the 1974 episode of The Rockford Files, “The Big Ripoff.”
4. ‘Starsky & Hutch’ (1975 to 1979 TV Guest Appearances)
Suzanne made three guest appearances on this cop drama: “Savage Sunday” in Season 1, “The Vampire” in Season 2, and “Murder Ward” in Season 3.
5. ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ (1977 TV Guest Star)
Suzanne and Lee Majors in ‘The Cheshire Project’ fifth season episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.
6. ‘Three’s Company’ (1977 to 1981 TV Series)
Oh, you know: it’s the place where the kisses are hers and hers and his. As detailed above, Suzanne left the show midway through its run after contract negotiations went south.
7. ‘It Happened at Lakewood Manor’ (1977 TV Movie)
In a nutshell, guests at the Lakewood Hotel find themselves battling a swarm of particularly aggressive ants. Also known as Ants and Panic at Lakewood Manor.
8. ‘Billy Jack Goes to Washington’ (1977 Film)
Fourth entry in Tom Laughlin’s popular Billy Jack film series, though this one was the first not to do well at the box office. Many considered this a loose remake of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Suzanne is a character named Sue.
9. ‘Rich Little’s Washington Follies’ (1978 TV Special)
Impressionist Rich Little hosted this special which featured, besides Suzanne, Tom Bosley, Robert Guillaume, and Dick Van Patten.
10. ‘Happily Ever After’ (1978 TV Movie)
An aspiring singer (Suzanne) is torn between a chance at Las Vegas stardom and the earnest courtship of a mountain man.
11. ‘Battle of the Network Stars IV’ (1978 Competition Series)
ABC’s competition series between — as the title says — stars from different networks. Hosted by Howard Cosell, this installment also featured (beyond Suzanne and Bruce Jenner) Gabe Kaplan (Welcome Back, Kotter), singer Debby Boone, Daryl Dragon of the Captain and Tenille, Parker Stevenson (The Hardy Boys), Toni Tenille, model Cheryl Tiegs, Tony Randall (The Odd Couple), Mackenzie Phillips (One Day at a Time), Victoria Principal (Dallas), Jimmie Walker (Good Times), Jane Curtain (Saturday Night Live), Melissa Gilbert (Little House on the Prairie), Arte Johnson (Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In), Lance Kerwin (James at 15), Steve Landesberg (Barney Miller) and Larry Wilcox (CHiPS), among others.
12. ‘Zuma Beach’ (1978 TV Movie)
A fading rock star (Suzanne) spends her last summer weekend at the beach with a bunch of teenage boys.
13. ‘The Carpenters: Space Encounters’ (1978 TV Special)
Karen and Richard Carpenter host this special which has some influence from the then-current phenomenon Star Wars. Guest in addition to Suzanne includes John Davidson and Charlie Callas.
14. ‘Yesterday’s Hero’ (1979 Film)
Ian McShane is a washed-up alcoholic soccer star who desperately wants to achieve a comeback, and to do so turns to his former girlfriend, Cloudy (Suzanne), who is now a rock star.
15. ‘Nothing Personal’ (1980 Film)
In this romantic comedy, Donald Sutherland is a professor who wants to do something about the killing of baby seals, while Suzanne is an attorney (educated at Harvard) who wants to help him.
16. ‘Hollywood Wives’ (1985 TV Movie)
Based on the novel by Jackie Collins, it focuses on a group of women in Hollywood who are connected to each other in different ways. Suzanne stars alongside Candice Bergen, Joanna Cassidy, Angie Dickinson, Mary Crosby, Stefanie Powers, and Catherine Mary Stewart.
17. ‘She’s the Sheriff’ (1987 to 1989 TV Series)
In her first series since Three’s Company, Suzanne is Hildy Granger, a widowed mother of two who accepts an offer to take her late husband’s place as sheriff of Nevada’s Lakes County. The show focuses on the challenges of balancing her work and home lives.
18. ‘Rich Men, Single Women’ (1990 TV Movie)
Heather Locklear, Deborah Adair, and Suzanne play a trio of women who decide to work together to help each other find and marry millionaires.
19. ‘Step by Step’ (1991 to 1998 TV Series)
You could view this as a modern version of The Brady Bunch in that Suzanne and Patrick Duffy play single parents of three kids each who meet each other on a Jamaican vacation, romantically connect instantly and spontaneously decide to get married. Hello, blended family!
20. ‘Keeping Secrets’ (1991 TV Movie)
Suzanne stars in this TV movie based on her autobiography of the same name, exploring all of the things she had gone through in her life up until that point.
21. ‘Exclusive’ (1992 TV Movie)
Mass murder at a nightclub puts an anchorwoman (Suzanne) onto a story which soon hits too close to home. Suzanne also serves as executive producer.
22. ‘Serial Mom’ (1994 Film)
Defensive of her son who a teacher has put down, Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) decides to run the instructor over, which awakens a blood lust that results in at least six more murders in this comedy. Suzanne has a small part as herself.
23. ‘The Suzanne Somers Show’ (1995 TV Talk Show)
As the title suggests, it was a talk show hosted by Suzanne, but it only lasted a single season. In 2012 she gave the idea another shot as host of The Suzanne Show, but that, too, only lasted a season.
24. ‘Full House’ (1994 TV Guest Star Appearance)
Just a guest appearance by Suzanne, seen here with Scott Weinger (Steve Hale), who, for those who don’t know it, was the voice for Disney’s Aladdin.
25. ‘Seduced by Evil’ (1994 TV Movie)
A sorcerer (John Vargas) places a journalist from New Mexico (Suzanne) under his spell and then threatens to destroy her family.
26. ‘8-Track Flashback’ (1995 to 1996 TV Series)
A VH1 music series co-hosted by Suzanne, David Cassidy (The Partridge Family), and Leif Garrett.
27. ‘Devil’s Food’ (1996 TV Movie)
TV news anchorwoman Sally McCormick must really want to stay on the air because she makes a deal with the devil to exchange her soul for becoming thin.
28. ‘Love-Struck’ (1997 TV Movie)
Venus, the goddess of love (Suzanne), sends her son Cupid (Costas Mandylor) to Earth to help restore Emily Vale’s (Cynthia Gibb) belief in love, but then he accidentally hits himself with a love arrow and falls in love with her. Stupid Cupid!
29. ‘No Laughing Matter’ (1998 TV Movie)
Emma Poleski (Suzanne) helplessly watches her life fall apart due to her growing alcoholism until her son steps in and fights with her for her sobriety.
30. ‘Candid Camera’ (1998 to 2000 TV Series)
The classic hidden camera show returns with Suzanne serving as co-host with Peter Funt, son of Candid Camera creator Allen Funt.
31. ‘Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List’ (2009 TV Series Guest Star)
Suzanne serving as a guest star on the comedian’s Bravo TV reality series.
32. ‘The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills’ (2013 TV Series Guest Star)
And it’s another guest turn, this time on Bravo’s other (of many) reality series, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
33. ‘Dancing with the Stars’ (2015 TV Series Participant)
Suzanne was a contestant on Season 20 of the series and made it until week 5 when she was voted off.
34. Suzanne and Her Son Bruce
35. Suzanne and Husband of 43 Years, Alan Hamel
36. Suzanne Somers and Her Grandchildren